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Iraq Prepares for Month of Fasting and Reflection

Weary from decades of war and sanctions, Iraqis hope their first post-Hussein Ramadan marks an era of peace.

October 24, 2003|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The holy month of Ramadan arrives on the wings of the crescent moon this weekend, and after more than 20 years of war, U.N. sanctions and more war under the Saddam Hussein regime, the weary Iraqi people, like Muslims everywhere, will take stock of their blessings and renew their commitment to God.

For one month, the vast majority of Iraqis, along with the rest of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, will fast from dawn to sunset and eschew all forms of indulgence, from food and drink to tobacco and sexual intercourse. They will cleanse their souls with prayer and ponder the vicissitudes that brought them to this improbable junction in the history of their ancient country: Hussein gone, Americans in charge, Iraq caught between the competing forces of democracy and mayhem.

Daoud Salman, 78, sat in front his grocery store in the middle-class Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Kahradainn one day this week, his fingers dancing over a string of prayer beads as he silently recited the 99 names of God.

This Ramadan, he said, will be different from any in many years, and he intends to gather his six children to share a benediction and prayers that Iraq's newfound freedoms portend better days to come.

"I must tell you from my heart, the days under Saddam were very tough," he said. "So for me, Ramadan this year is a gift from God. It would be difficult to tell you how much Shiites suffered under Saddam. But suffer we did, in terrible ways."

Here he paused. His fingers moved faster over the beads. His lip quivered, tears glistened in his eyes, and he wept. Would this Ramadan be remembered for its tranquillity or violence, he was asked. He shook his head, not knowing. But he was concerned, as were others.

"There are rumors there will be more suicide attacks this Ramadan because someone put it in people's heads they have a better chance of going to heaven as a martyr if they do it during this month," said Zainab Hussein, 24, a computer science student. "Personally, I don't think this is true, because most of the casualties are Iraqi and besides, we want stability, not turmoil."

U.S.-led forces plan no changes in their aggressive efforts against the Iraqi resistance, military commanders say. But the midnight-to-4 a.m. curfew in Baghdad will be lifted during Ramadan so Iraqis can while away the wee hours in cafes and visit relatives after breaking their daily fast. And the coalition has given Ramadan bonuses to state workers and has shortened the workday for the month.

"We've made sure that all our units are well aware of the implications of Ramadan, that they understand the rhythms and sensitivities of the holy month," U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the top coalition commander, said Wednesday.

The cadence of Ramadan includes people straggling in late to work, growing irritable without food, water or cigarettes during the day and conducting themselves with unusual piety.

Along the crowded street where Salman sat, many Iraqis shared the grocer's view that life is improving. They have electricity 16 hours a day, water supplies are adequate, shoppers have money, business is booming and movie theaters have opened.

But in each comment there was a twinge of angst and exhaustion. They dare to hope life is on the mend but, with American tanks on the streets and the potential of violence lurking around every bend, they know the dangers of optimism.

"I think more people will fast more this Ramadan because God got rid of Saddam, and that is a miracle in a way," said Maazin Mohammed, 17, a student. "The resistance will not get us anywhere; it will just cause more suffering. Everyone is a target now, because you could be walking down the street and get mixed up in some bomb attack. I'm tired of worrying about my friends and family every time they go out."

"Whatever happens this year," said Aida Abood, 46, the mother of four teenagers, "the situation could not be as horrible as Ramadan in 1991, during the first Gulf War, when we broke our fast each night to the sounds of jetfighters and anti-aircraft guns and sirens and explosions."

Although Muslims, who make up all but a small segment of Iraq's population, consider Ramadan a time of peace, the prophet Muhammad did not declare that hostilities must cease during the month and excused soldiers at war -- as well as pregnant women and the ill -- from the fast, which is one of Islam's five pillars of faith.

The late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, in fact, chose Ramadan to launch an attack across the Suez Canal in 1973, believing Israel would be unprepared for an assault in the holy month.

When Sadat drove to the operation's center just before the first strike, he saw that his officers were fasting. He scolded them, asking why no one was smoking or drinking, saying their utmost concentration was needed. "I noticed they were very embarrassed," Sadat recalled in his autobiography, "so I ordered some tea for myself and lit my pipe -- whereupon they began to smoke and order tea."

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